Writers in the Storm welcomes Shannon Donnelly back, as this month, she makes an excellent argument for writing what you know-and better yet-tells us how.
Writing advice can often seem mysterious. The phrase “write what you know” at first left me shaking my head. It’s often seemed to me that when you know too much about something that knowledge can make you the worst person to write about it—you end up assuming too much. On the other hand, when you know nothing about a subject, you don’t even know the mistakes you’re making. But I eventually had an “ah ha” moment about this.
This “ah ha” came when I was looking for a story idea. I’d contracted to do a couple of novellas (about 100 pages each, so a long short story). In the search for ideas, something happened in real life—something I’d confided to a friend got back to another friend. It was a small case of betrayal—both on my part for saying something in the first place and the friend’s for repeating a confidence—and it stung. It was, in fact, perfect material for a writer. Ah ha!
Writing what you know means taking out either your experiences—or those of your closest friends—and putting them to use. Meaning giving them to characters and seeing what they do. It means taking things you have experienced—such as this betrayal—and writing about it. Everything else you can research, but if you don’t have the emotional background, it’s going to be hard to fake it.
I think this is why Somerset Maugham advised writers to go out and live first—you need to know a few things about life before you can write about it. And I see this mistake cropping up in manuscripts.
Recently I trained as an EMT First Responder—we live in a rural area and we need all the local help we can train. That training has changed how I look at accidents and illness—I could write better now about any scene with trauma or trouble. And I read differently too—when folks have EMTs staff doing dumb things like hauling someone out of a car without a long spinebord, I cringe. That’s writing what you know—if you don’t know it, you have to find someone who does and pick their brains. Make their knowledge yours. And if you can’t find the right person, time to do the research.
You can know something very well from books. Mary Stewart did all of her traveling before she wrote via book. And Nora Robert’s fantastic descriptions of a glass blower in Born in Fire all came from her research instead of hands-on knowing.
Now all this may seem obvious, but the advice had to hit me upside the head before it took. From the manuscripts I’ve seen in contests, other folks need to learn this as well. Get some knowing under your belt before you start into that writing—and if you don’t know, go and find out. Live a little more. Then write about it. Or change your characters into someone you do know.
You either write about yourself—or you write about those around you whom you know. But you’ve got to know the truth of your characters deep in your soul.
Whether you came down on the side of Laura Drake or Fae Rowen in the Write What You Know WITS Throwdown, Shannon has offered compelling arguments for writing what you know. What experience do you have with writing what you know? Or writing something you know nothing about?
Shannon Donnelly’s latest book Burn Baby Burn, an Urban Fantasy, has just come out from Cool Gus Publishing.
Her writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA’s Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”
Her work has been on the top seller list of Amazon.com and she recently published Paths of Desire, a Historical Regency romance, of which Romantic Historical Lovers notes: “a story where in an actress meets an adventurer wouldn’t normally be at the top of my TBR pile; but I’ve read and enjoyed other books by this author and so I thought I’d give this one a go. I’m glad I did. I was hooked and pulled right into the world of the story from the very beginning…Highly recommended.” Paths of Desire and her other Regency romances can be found as ebooks with on all ebook formats, and with Cool Gus Publishing.
She has had novellas published in several anthologies, has had young adult horror stories published and is the author of several computer games. She lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and only one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at sd-writer.com, facebook.com/sdwriter, and twitter/sdwriter.
Burn Baby Burn
Can a demon hunter raise a little hell?
When a half-demon baby puts Mackenzie Solomon’s life—and her job as a demon hunter—on the line, she can’t turn her back on the half-pint of evil. But ‘Junior’ is actually part of a trap to turn Mackenzie’s partner, Josh, and his extraordinary charming skills to the dark uses of the ancient, fallen Grigori, the angels once assigned to be Watchers over humanity. Is she going to have to make a choice about the men in her life? Can a charmer talk his way out of his destiny?
Josh learned months ago that the bad blood in his demon hunting partner brings out a part of he can’t control—including his desire for her. With a prophecy out on him, he’s more than a little worried some of those bad things should stay burried. But is Mackenzie really the start of something bad—or could she be everyone’s salvation?
Can a couple of humans move Heaven to save Earth? Mackenzie’s bosses at The Endowment—the place responsible for keeping the peace between heaven and hell—want her to bring in the baby demon and not for anything good. With the Endowment after her and demons to stop, Mackenzie knows she’s on her own. But she’s going to have to learn to trust Josh—and to use what’s sparking between them. Because it’s going to take the kind of love that bonds souls forever to keep the world from ending.